Zero Dark Thirty – Film Review

The film begins with the tearful sounds of people on their cells, victims and observers of New York’s twin towers in 2001, and ends with the tears of a woman seated in an otherwise empty military plane, ready to take her to wherever she wants to go.  The events that unfold in the decade between those two undeniably emotional moments is the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and it’s a stunning piece of work that could potentially leave you feeling as emotionally drained as the young woman seated on that cavernous plane.  You won’t be cheering – the actual killing is realistic, subdued and over before you know it – but it’s satisfying, all the same.

Much has already been discussed regarding the scenes of torture where the CIA appears to routinely use waterboarding and other means of torment as a way of obtaining information.  To date, at least three senators have criticized the film with claims of misleading audiences into believing a country that publicly declares torture as illegal would secretly use it to get the information that it wants.  While I would say that an entertainment review column is not the forum to debate the validity of such claims I’m also sure that a film which begins by declaring itself to be based on first-hand accounts of actual events would need to be as authentic as possible.  When interrogating terrorists or those associated with terrorist organizations in secret locations and you’re looking for the most wanted terrorist in the world, you must be aware that something more than harsh language is going to be used.

The title, Zero Dark Thirty, refers to the timing of the raid on bin Laden’s compound; thirty minutes after midnight.  There is also a second meaning, as director Kathryn Bigelow has explained, where the title refers to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade long mission.

You know that thing we talked about?” asks a CIA officer known simply as George (Mark Strong).  “”It’s gonna happen.  Tonight.”


That thing George is referring to is the raid.  After almost ten years of searching, investigating, and interrogating, the CIA is finally convinced it knows where bin Laden is hiding, and the crack, military team, known here as the Canaries, are given the nod to go in.  What follows for the final hour of Zero Dark Thirty is gripping, first-class film making from a director who had already established herself as a person who could keep an audience continually on edge with The Hurt Locker, even when there was seemingly nothing happening.  Here, knowing that she’s portraying a real event, her directorial style is even more effective.

Zero Dark Thirty is not the visceral thrill ride that much of The Hurt Locker may have seemed.  The first hour and a half is the solid detective work that successfully lead to the location of the compound where we discover it was the single-minded determination of a female CIA Officer called Maya (an outstanding Jessica Chastain) who relentlessly pushed the envelope in order to make her superiors follow through.  While these scenes of frustration and uncertainty have a continual sense of fascination about them, they may also baffle.

Because of what the CIA operatives are doing around the globe, you’re not always sure of the where and why and how it fits together.  Names and places confuse, and after awhile mean nothing; you just allow events to play out and hope that somewhere along the line it’ll all make sense.  It’s like watching the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle trying to fall into to place, but the big picture never forms and there always seems to be huge pieces of the puzzle missing.   Yet, once a certain interrogation inadvertently leads to the location of a secret compound, the film hits top gear, and it’s unstoppable.

Even though the film is getting its general showing in 2013, technically this is a 2012 release, meaning it is eligible for the oncoming Oscars.  The controversy surrounding the scenes of torture may politically cloud its chances of winning Best Picture, but its nomination is all but assured.

 MPAA Rating:  R      Length:  157 minutes       Overall Rating:  9 (out of 10)


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